What does “extraordinary talent” look like? Hyesu Lee reflects on the impact of landing her O-1B visa
The Brooklyn-based illustrator looks back on the trials and tribulations of obtaining her O-1B visa and how the process affected her creative growth. Here, she expands on how “getting the visa doesn’t guarantee your success, it only means you’re finally at the starting line about to jump into the cutthroat world of our industry.”
- Hyesu Lee
- 7 December 2021
Looking back, I was only able to go through my “visa journey” because I had no clue what I was getting myself into. You won’t know what to expect until you take it for yourself. I was pretty naive about it in the beginning. If I had to do it again, I would seriously consider moving back to Korea for good.
When applying for an O-1B visa in the US, it requires the longest series of boxes to tick in order to prove that you have an “extraordinary talent”. The O-1B visa is an artist visa for an individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement (recognised nationally or internationally) in motion picture or television. You don’t have to live in the US to apply however, but I was advised by my lawyer that it’s probably better to apply whilst on a student visa plus you may have more opportunities to get recognised in your field. Once you obtain the O-1B visa, you can stay for three years at a time, if you need to stay in the US longer, you can apply for an extension for one year at a time. It takes around three to four months to obtain the visa, if you’re lucky.
But the question is, how can you prove you have an “extraordinary talent” to someone who might have zero idea as to what that looks like in illustration? It’s probably why there is so much paperwork for artists to prepare in order to obtain this visa, a visa that allows you to work and try your luck at being the next best thing in one of the best cities in the world.
My visa journey actually began in the UK because I did my undergrad in London, but after I exhausted my student visa status, it seemed almost impossible to extend my visa unless I went back to school or found someone to marry. Obviously going back to school was an easier option, so I did it in the US. My time in grad school was fantastic, however, I always knew there was a ticking time bomb that I would have to deal with, and I was fully aware of how short the window of opportunity is.
“If I had to do it again, I would seriously consider moving back to Korea for good.”Hyesu Lee
“It’s really hard to say if it’s worth it in the end. Because getting the visa doesn’t guarantee your success, it only means you’re finally at the starting line about to jump into the cutthroat world of our industry.”Hyesu Lee
To be honest, it created a lot of stress during my university years because I knew I did not have the luxury to solely focus on creative growth. We were under a lot of pressure due to a busy grad school schedule and juggling life, and on top of that, I knew it would take a long time to build my career as an illustrator while figuring out a visa application less than a year after graduation. Additionally, hiring a lawyer costs a lot of money plus what I already spent on my grad school tuition.
I was in a dilemma as I wanted to dedicate my time to figuring out who I am and what I want in grad school rather than chasing after jobs for my application. I remember freaking out and getting so worried when some of my classmates got work from established publications, because that was exactly what I needed but my work wasn’t the right fit for those clients. What ifs constantly hung over my head: What if I don’t have anything tangible to show for the visa by the end of it?
On the flip side it did push me to do things that could help my application such as entering illustration competitions, joining well-established creative organisations, doing unpaid internships; all while trying to figure out what it means or how I can look like a valuable asset in my field.
Most of my resources came from overseas friends who had gone through or were going through similar visa processes. Although many of them ended up going back due to the hardship of the process or alternatively, they were rejected even if they were extraordinarily talented.
It’s been a while since I went through the process, but now I teach overseas students who are so worried, their priorities are completely occupied with their visa status. The sad thing is, they’re only in their first semester of their first year. My heart reaches out to them. It’s really hard to say if it’s worth it in the end. Because getting the visa doesn’t guarantee your success, it only means you’re finally at the starting line about to jump into the cutthroat world of our industry.
“You constantly need to think about how every piece of work can become evidence to how extraordinary you are as an artist.”Hyesu Lee
I wanted to stay in the US and give myself a shot so bad. It’s not that I didn’t like living in Korea. I was quite comfortable, everything was rather easy. However, I always felt like an outsider and I suppressed my feelings to fit in. Now I look back, it stopped me from being completely myself and I was pretty unhappy. That’s why I was willing to do whatever it takes. So I did. I sucked up the endless paperwork, costs for hiring a lawyer, reaching out to people, making some BS that would make my career look more glamorous than it actually was, all for the paperwork.
To be honest, I was lucky. I felt very welcomed when I first moved to the US, and also made many friends and built a good support system. It is not your home though, the visa status and immigration process at the border make sure you remember that. Now I’m in a place where I don't worry about working and living in the USA as much, but although holding a green card status allows me to work, it won’t allow me to leave the country for more than two years.
Recently one of my dear friends told me that she’s considering going back to her country for a while because she is tired of going through the process to extend her visa status every couple of years. I don’t want her to leave, but I get it. The constant hustle, financial burden, plus the unsettling feelings that stops you from fully nesting is a big deal, it takes a big toll on you. What if you prefer to produce only personal work for a while that may or may not be published but is so important to you; it won’t appear to be impressive in the visa application due to the lack of publication. You constantly need to think about how every piece of work can become evidence to how extraordinary you are as an artist.
I developed a thicker skin that shields me from feeling alienated, because I finally accepted who I am. I’m a proud immigrant who lives amongst many proud immigrants. I don’t know if it’s an “extraordinary talent” that I’m contributing, but I like that I can contribute something.
If anyone out there is stressed and worried about this journey you’re thinking about taking, I want you to remember that regardless of what happens you do have exceptional talent. Take some time to really think about whether this is what you definitely want, also talk with peers and friends who have gone through it already to help you make the right decision. Don’t feel pressure to apply just because others do. We all take a different journey and embrace your own (visa) journey!
“I’m a proud immigrant who lives amongst many proud immigrants. I don’t know if it’s an ‘extraordinary talent’ that I’m contributing, but I like that I can contribute something.”Hyesu Lee
Copyright © Hyesu Lee, 2021
About the Author
“I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. I would be proud to say I’m fresh off the boat although I'm not as fresh as I used to be anymore! I’ve been in Brooklyn, New York for ten years now, going about my life as an illustrator, artist, muralist, and educator. My art has always been driven by a curiosity around how people connect. I was very shy growing up, so I never knew how best to communicate with those around me. But drawing people – observing them and learning about them – that’s my way of connecting. Art, after all, has no language barrier.”